'Nerd Do Well': Simon Pegg On 'Becoming A Big Kid'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 7:20 pm

Growing up in Gloucester England in the 1980s, Simon Pegg idolized American action heroes. Obsessed with Star Wars, he was the kind of kid who put a picture of Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia on his bedroom wall. In short, a nerd, who would channel his boyhood passions into a career in comedy and professional nerdom.

Pegg is best known for what has become a cult classic zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. He also co-wrote Hot Fuzz, the buddy cop film set in an England village where a missing swan is a call to action. He joins NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about his new memoir, Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid.

Before he grew up into a "big kid," Pegg remembers he played Star Wars with his friends. Pegg identified with the "whiny" Luke Skywalker — even though he says Han Solo was obviously cooler. "Maybe my identification with [Skywalker] was that I was kind of a farm boy, miles from anything interesting and maybe [I] related to his desire to get involved with the fight against the evil empire."

Nerdy from a young age — and funny, too. Pegg still recalls the first joke he ever told — at age 6 — to an audience of his mother and grandmother. "I remember the intellectual process," Pegg says. He knew what he was about to say might be funny, but he pretended to play it cute, instead. "We were talking about my friend and I said, 'Oh his dad's a dentist.' And she said, 'Where does he practice?' And I said, 'No he's a real one.'" A simple joke, Pegg acknowledges, but he was young, and it hinted at what was to come. "I seemed predetermined to seeing things that way," he says.

His love for zombie movies came early, too — Pegg says he was influenced by George Romero, director of the cult classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. "A sort of right-wing group banned a whole bunch of what they called 'video nasties,'" Pegg recalls. "The hunt for a copy of Dawn of the Dead was like the Holy Grail for teenagers in the '80s where I lived. Before I saw it, I knew all about it: I knew there was a guy who got the top of his head chopped off by a helicopter, I knew there was a moment when someone got their guts ripped out, and it was like: I gotta see this, this sounds great!"

Pegg had seen stills from Dawn of the Dead in his Encyclopedia of Horror — which made it all the more enticing. He couldn't wait to see the American mall "awash" with blood. "There was also something frightening about it as well," Pegg admits. "There was an idea that you could watch these films and be mentally scarred by them. You'd hear rumors about these kids that found a pirate video of Dawn of the Dead and they'd all gone mad and killed each other. These apocryphal stories ... would go around school."

One day, when Pegg was 12 years old, a friend came by with a coveted copy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "I was so frightened to watch it that I actually said no," Pegg says. "Looking back, I'm glad, because that film is so scary and brilliant but ... I wouldn't have slept for a week."

Fast forward two decades, and Pegg was well into his career writing his own zombie films. In Shaun of the Dead, which Pegg co-wrote, Ed is a young slob (that's one below a slacker, Pegg explains) who must grapple with family and relationship problems ... and the zombie apocalypse. "Even in the face of a zombie apocalypse your life only changes in so much," Pegg explains. "You find yourself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, nothing else changes: you're still scared of spiders, you still like the same music, you still have the same little quarrels with people."

(At one point in the film, the characters realize that vinyl is an effective weapon against the zombies, so they start to throw records — but they have to choose carefully because Shaun doesn't want to lose his original pressing of Blue Monday or The Stone Roses' second album.)

As for the raging genre war over whether zombies should be slow or fast, Pegg falls solidly on the side of slow-moving zombies. "It is sort of a schism in the church of the undead," Pegg explains. "I personally don't like fast zombies because, A) it's fun to get annoyed about something so trivial and B) I think it removes their appeal."

In popular film history, zombies have become known as pathetic, tragic figures; Audiences can feel sorry for them, Pegg says. "They don't have any agenda. They just do what they do, which is eat flesh. And when they start running around screaming like Velociraptors, you just don't care about them anymore, you just think: go away, you noisy speed demon."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Simon Pegg is best known for what has become a cult classic, the zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead." Plus "Hot Fuzz," the buddy cop film set in an English village where missing swan is a call to action.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HOT FUZZ")

MONTAGNE: (as Sgt. Nicholas Angel) Yes, Mr. Staker, we'll do everything we can. Can you describe it to me?

MONTAGNE: (as Peter Ian Staker) It's about two-foot tall, long slender neck...

(SOUNDBITE OF A BIRD)

MONTAGNE: (as Sgt. Nicholas Angel) Yeah.

MONTAGNE: (as Peter Ian Staker) ...got orange and black bill.

MONTAGNE: (as Sgt. Nicholas Angel) Anything else?

MONTAGNE: (as Peter Ian Staker) Well, it's a swan.

MONTAGNE: And you write that you and your friends would play "Star Wars" and you identified with Luke Skywalker, even though Han Solo was the really infinitely cooler guy, as you put it.

MONTAGNE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Although Luke Skywalker was pretty cool for a kid.

MONTAGNE: He's kind of whiny though, wasn't he? He was like, oh, I want to go down the shop with my friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Yeah, but I kind of say in the book that maybe my identification with him was because I was kind of a farm boy, miles from anything interesting and maybe related to his desires to sort of get involved with the fight against the Evil Empire, which I kind of was. I was living in the countryside and Gloucester, albeit a wonderfully historic and picturesque town, isn't really the center of activity anywhere.

MONTAGNE: In the book, you shared the very first joke you ever told. You were - what - six?

MONTAGNE: That's right. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: It was...

MONTAGNE: I do. I remember it was...

MONTAGNE: Your audience was, of course, your mother and grandmother.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: I remember the intellectual process of thinking, hang on, this might be funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: You know, and kind of - but I pretended I didn't realize that it was funny though. I decided to go for pretending to be cute and sort of unworldly.

MONTAGNE: Tell us the joke.

MONTAGNE: We were talking about my friend and I said, oh, his dad is a dentist. And she said, where does he practice. And I said, no, he's a real one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: And, you know, it's a very simple joke but I was only very young. And it just struck me as interesting that I seemed predetermined to seeing things that way, you know.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. But George Romero - of course famous director of "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead" - he would seem to have had quite an influence on you. Where did you come by your interests in zombie films? Was it from seeing the George Romero films?

MONTAGNE: Some of them were great movies like "Evil Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead." And these films got lumped in just because they were full of crayon red blood and nobody actually got the fact that there was some fun involved in them. And so the hunt for a copy of "Dawn of the Dead" was like the Holy Grail for teenagers in the '80s where I lived. And before I saw it, I knew all about it. I knew there was a guy who got his top of his head chopped off by helicopter. I knew there was the, you know, a moment someone got their guts ripped out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: And it was like, I've got to see this - this sounds great.

MONTAGNE: I gather from memoirs that, even as a younger kid, you had access to the "Encyclopedia of Horror" that you...

MONTAGNE: And there was also something kind of frightening about it, as well. There was an idea that you could watch these films and be mentally scarred by them. You know, you hear rumors about these kids, they find a pirate video of "Dawn of the Dead" and they've all gone mad and killed each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Looking back, I'm glad because that film is so scary and brilliant. But I'm glad it and watch it when I was 12 'cause I wouldn't have slept for a week.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Well, "Shaun of the Dead," which you co-wrote, that takes your character who's a kind of slacker, I guess.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: His friend, Ed, who is worse than a slacker. What is Ed?

MONTAGNE: He's a slob, but one below a slacker.

MONTAGNE: All the characters in it sort of keep moving along in their own lives, even as there's the big zombie attack going on. Describe for us the moment in "Shaun of the Dead," where, you know, average life just suddenly appears in the midst of this attack by zombies.

MONTAGNE: There's a moment in the film when they realize that the vinyl is quite a good weapon against zombies and they decide to throw records at them. But they choose really carefully which ones to throw, because Shaun doesn't want to lose his original pressing of "Blue Monday" or The Stone Roses' second album, and all this kind of stuff. And so whilst the zombies are encroaching upon them, they're flicking through his records choosing which ones to throw.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHAUN OF THE DEAD")

MONTAGNE: (as Ed) "Purple Rain"?

MONTAGNE: (as Shaun) No.

MONTAGNE: (as Ed) "Sign of the times?"

MONTAGNE: (as Shaun) Definitely not.

MONTAGNE: (as Ed) The Batman soundtrack?

MONTAGNE: (as Shaun) Throw it.

MONTAGNE: (as Ed) Sade.

MONTAGNE: (as Shaun) That's Lizzie's.

MONTAGNE: (as Ed) Yeah, but she did dump you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THROWING AND BREAKING GLASS)

MONTAGNE: One part of you that sort of brings out the nerd in you, is the whole question of certain zombie - a change in the form, I guess - which goes from zombies who, in your movies and most zombie movies, are very slow. You can practically, you know, it just get past them. There are suddenly in some zombie movies fast zombies. And again, there is this sort of a controversy about fans of the zombie genre.

MONTAGNE: And when they start running around screaming like velociraptors, you just don't care about them anymore. You just think, oh, go away, you noisy speed demon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Yes. Thank you very much for joining us. It's been a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, Renee. My pleasure, not at all.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.